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Omicron subvariant leads to rise in COVID-19 cases in Wyoming, Natrona County amid summer travel

COVID-19 testing site across the street from the Casper-Natrona County Health Department (Gregory Hirst, Oil City)

CASPER, Wyo.  — The latest COVID-19 strain, a subvariant of Omicron, appears to be behind a recent increase in cases in Wyoming, according to state health officials.

“I think the presence of BA.5 and an overall decrease in preventive measures has led to this recent increase in cases,” Clay Van Houten, Infectious Disease Epidemiology Unit Manager at the Wyoming Department of Health, told Oil City in an email statement.

On July 13, new cases statewide increased to a seven-day average of 196, the recent peak from the single-digit lows after the Omicron surge in January. Nationally, cases have been on the rise for weeks, and BA.5 has become the predominant lineage in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We know there are likely quite a few more cases out there that never get reported to us because the only test completed is a home test,” Van Houten said, though he added that some who test positive at home seek a documented confirmation.

“One metric that is concerning right now is the number of [Wyoming] counties that have moved into either medium or high risk within the CDC COVID-19 community levels,” Van Houten said. “There are only two counties right now that are at low risk.” 

The “community level” metric now being used by the CDC is determined by factors including the number of new cases, vaccine status, hospital bed use and hospital admissions in an area.

Natrona County is among the counties at “high” risk, and the CDC recommends indoor masking and extra precautions for people at high risk. There are currently 11 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 at the Wyoming Medical Center, according to state data. On July 5, there were 16, the most since late February. The county is averaging about 14 new cases daily.

“I wouldn’t say this is unexpected,” said Hailey Bloom, public information officer for the Casper-Natrona County Health Department. “And there’s an accumulation of factors.”

After over two years of the pandemic, Bloom said that people are generally anxious to fully return to travel, events and visiting people they haven’t seen in a while, especially during the summer.  

Vaccine immunity is waning, and most of those who got a booster did so by mid-January, Bloom said. Currently second boosters are only recommended for people over 50 and those at high risk. About 46% of Natrona County has gotten the first two doses, compared to about 51.5% statewide, according to CDC data.

Drive-up testing is also up slightly at the health department clinic, though the line has topped out at about four cars at a time so far. That’s a long way from the lines of cars stretching around blocks at multiple testing sites in November 2020, which Bloom called “the worst of times.”

Bloom recommends that people take note of the increased transmission levels and consider the familiar precautions: getting tested and staying home when sick, reconsidering attendance at large gatherings, and being conscious of those who are elderly or at higher risk due to health conditions.

Bloom added that vaccines are safe, free, and consistently reduce the severity and duration of symptoms from COVID-19.

“People know the drill,” Bloom said. “We recommend people make educated decisions … whatever is reasonable for them, that’s what we’re going to continue to recommend.”

Bloom added that the recent uptick in cases tracks with historical data on pandemics across time. “It’s certainly not going to go away,” she said.

Like earlier variants, BA.5 seems to be more transmissible, but causes less severe symptoms, Van Houten said.

“Interestingly, the symptoms reported are much like the earlier variants, except for a loss of the sense of taste and smell — we are not having that reported as a symptom nearly as much as we did in earlier waves,” Van Houten said.

Bloom added that people are reporting less severe symptoms, the worst of which generally only last a few days.

Unless they are testing for travel, people can drive up for a test without an appointment at the trailers in the dirt lot across the street from the clinic at 475 S. Spruce St. Testing is available Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Travel testing requires an appointment with 24 hours’ notice.

The Wyoming Department of Health provides COVID-19 case, variant, death, testing, hospital and vaccine data online. The department also shares information about how the data can be interpreted. COVID-19 safety recommendations are available from the CDC.